This weekend is what my father would have called “a trifecta” of holiday celebrations – a run of three winners, one after the other. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, tonight and tomorrow is Shabbat and on Sunday evening, we light the first Chanukah candle. Needless to say, Shabbat and Hanukkah are Jewish holidays, but did you know that Thanksgiving may also be Jewish? And that there is a strong suggestion that it is actually mentioned in the Torah? In Hebrew, it is called Sukkot.
In 1492, as every American knows, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but as every Jewish person knows, 1492 was also the year of the Expulsion from Spain. Under the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to choose between conversion, death, or exile. Many fled to other countries, including a group who ended up in the Netherlands, where the Sephardic Jewish community found safety and tolerance.
A little more than a hundred years later, Christian Puritans fled persecution in England due to their religious beliefs, and in 1607, also settled for a while in the Netherlands before making their way to the New World. For more than ten years, these pious pilgrims found themselves living among Sephardic Jews, with whom they had a lot in common.
The Puritans strongly identified with the historical traditions and customs of the Israelites in the Bible. In their quest for freedom, the Puritans viewed their journey to America as exactly analogous to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea, and the Puritans were the Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. In fact, most of the Puritans had Hebrew names and there was even a proposal to make Hebrew the language of the colonies.
After the Puritans had survived multiple challenges and reaped their first harvest, they began the tradition of giving thanks for the harvest and for the bounty of the year. They threw a three-day celebration, with 90 Wampanoag Native Americans joining the 53 Puritans in the feast. The Wampanoag had befriended them, helping them learn how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. Over the years this event has taken on a bitter taste for many Native Americans in light of what later unfolded, but initially the spirit of the feast was one of joy, celebration, and togetherness in thanksgiving.
The Torah states:
“After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vats, you shall hold the feast of Sukkot…You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and your daughter…the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your community….for the Lord will bless all your crops and all your undertakings and you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
Could it be that the first Thanksgiving feast was based on what the Puritans had seen of the Jewish Sukkot celebrations, the Festival of Ingathering and Gratitude for the bounty of the land? Many scholars believe this might be the case. Others believe it was the Puritans’ close reading of the Bible, which dictated almost every aspect of their lives, that inspired them to recreate Sukkot, after their first harvest.
Either way, the two holidays certainly have plenty in common.
- Both involve pilgrims. Just as the Jewish people used to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, so the early Christian settlers of America were later known as pilgrims.
- Both celebrate the harvest and joyful in-gathering.
- Both happen in the fall.
- Both are based on the Biblical command to give thanks.
- Both are based around family and communal gathering.
- Both involve a lot of food and feasting.
- Both are a time of rejoicing and sharing our bounty with those in need.
- Both include prayers of gratitude to God.
While we cannot be certain what motivated those Puritan settlers to initiate a feast of thanksgiving, it is not unlikely that they consciously drew upon a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. As “new Israelites” in a new “promised land,” they sure found inspiration in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God commands us to observe Sukkot and “rejoice before Adonai your God at the time of the fall harvest.”
In addition, here are a few pieces of Jewish trivia about Thanksgiving that I’d like to share with you:
- The Hebrew word for turkey is “hodu,” but it also means to give thanks. So, we are eating hodu on the day of Thanksgiving.
- When Christopher Columbus set out on his famous voyage, he brought along Luis de Torres as his interpreter. De Torres spoke 22 languages, including Hebrew, Chaldaic and Arabic and was actually a converso, born with the name Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri. De Torres addressed the native Americans in every language he knew, but still could not find any words in common. However, he did discover a new bird that he had never seen before – large with a fan of tail feathers – and named the bird after the Hebrew tukki, which means parrot. And that is how the turkey got its name!
- In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for synagogues to hold services on Thanksgiving, as was the custom for a time among American churches. Renowned Professor of American Jewish History, Jonathan Sarna asserts that Thanksgiving is one of four annual holidays – Hanukkah, Passover and the Fourth of July are the others – that together promoted what he called “a culture of synthesis,” the idea that Judaism and Americanism reinforce each other. In fact, some two dozen Jewish Thanksgiving sermons were published in 1900 supporting this idea.
Finally, I close with the reminder that giving thanks is a primary Jewish value, to be expressed not just once a year, but all the time. That is why our sages in the Talmud suggested that we try to say 100 blessings a day!
When we celebrate a Jewish holiday, the custom is to say Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday). I want to wish you all Shabbat Shalom and a Hanukkah Sameach and I hope that yesterday, you had a Thanksgiving Sameach, too.
With love and gratitude,